"Frame Landscapes with Lighting"

By Matthew Trulio

Constantine G. Pergantis is "on a roll," the kind of stream-of-energy monologue he can't resist launching into when it comes to landscape lighting, his favorite subject. His enthusiasm for the topic is downright infectious.

"A little light goes a long, long way," says Pergantis, owner of Nite Lites, a landscape lighting design, installation, and sales firm based in Potomac, MD. "From a lighting design standpoint, the biggest mistake I see is people going 'hog wild' and using too many lights. Light goes a long way. One of the points I use to illustrate this point is, a full moon at night measures one foot-candle. A 20-watt lamp puts out four or five foot candles."

Whether your landscape construction business is in Potomac, MD, or Poway, CA, landscape lighting is a service worth adding, if you don't offer it already. In addition to enhancing safety and security, lighting provides the evening "frame" for your clients' landscapes. In residential settings' lighting invites people into the landscape and helps transform backyards into viable entertainment areas. That's an enhancement which can't be underestimated.

Outdoor lighting dramatically frames landscapes once the sun goes down. Photos courtesy: Rund Lighting. Low-voltage lighting systems can be installed easily and safely near water features. mated, particularly in many portions of California where the spring, summer, and fall climate makes outdoor entertaining a virtual way of life.


High-quality landscape lighting systems and components are available in both regular 120-volt and 12-volt models. Your choice between the two rests on a number of factors, including the area to be lighted and the objectives of that lighting. One of the primary advantages of low-voltage lighting is that you don't have to hold an electrical contractor's license to install it. Low-voltage lighting systems incorporate converters, which convert regular line voltage to harmless 12-volt.

"Another of the primary advantages to low-voltage lighting is that when you retrofit an existing landscape, you don't have to tear everything up," Pergantis enthuses. "It's a lot easier to install. People tend to have the impression that low-voltage lighting is not as bright and not as high-quality as regular voltage lighting, but that's just not true. On average, a low-voltage light bulb is three times brighter per watt than a line voltage bulb. Plus, the fixtures are generally less expensive and smaller—not as noticeable. Remember, you want to see the light, not the fixture."

"With low-voltage lights, you're allowed to get near water," he adds. "With that in mind, I see a lot of people 'missing the boat' by excluding low-voltage lights for decks around spas and hot tubs. And now there are even specific low-voltage fixtures for deck lighting."

While Pergantis' lighting installations are predominantly low-voltage, he does see applications that are better suited to regular voltage lighting, such as long driveways. "In runs of 150 feet or more, it's not advantageous to continue to use low-voltage because you're limited by the length of the run," he says. "You'd have to install larger wire and more transformers than would be cost-effective. If the driveway is more than 150 feet from the power source, you're going to need line voltage power out there anyway.

"Most driveway lighting is installed to be 'functional,' meaning that it will be on longer, probably all night," he continues. "That means you want to use the most efficient light source in terms of lumens per watt and lamp life. The number one light source for that application is the fluorescent light bulb, and for the most part it's only available in line voltage."

According to Pergantis, there are at least 35 companies that manufacture low-voltage outdoor lighting. While the lines of low-voltage lighting marketed to home improvement centers may be suitable for do-it-yourself homeowner needs and budgets, they probably aren't adequate for contractor use, particularly if you warranty or guarantee your work. One of the main attractions to offering landscape lighting as a service is that, done correctly with high-quality products, it requires little or no maintenance once installed. Installing a less-than-durable system will almost guarantee frequent call backs from unhappy clients.

"For the most part, just one of the high-quality, low-voltage light fixtures I install costs as much as an entire low-voltage kit at a home center," Pergantis reveals. "I hate to say this, but one of my most frequently effective sales is to homeowners dissatisfied with the systems they installed themselves. They're very limited in the distances they can run, amount of lights they can use, and in the brightness they get out of each light."

What should you look for in a specific fixture? Pergantis suggests fixtures constructed of non-corrosive materials such as aluminum, Lexan, and PVC. If you choose a metal fixture, how it is coated and what it is coated with—as well as the climate—will in large part determine the fixture's longevity. In both aluminum and other metal light fixture selection, the thickness of the material is an important consideration, says Pergantis.

"Keep in mind that these things are outside, exposed to the elements or maybe even salt air," he warns. "You want to explain this to your client, so that maybe you can spend a little more money in the beginning on a higher quality fixture, something that's going to last.

"The thing about landscape lighting is, once clients have it, they fall in love with it," he continues. "A lot of people will have you light their yard, then they'll add a tree or something else and want to light that. If you've gone with a transformer that can only handle four fixtures, and you've already installed those four, you've got a problem when it comes time to add another. You may want to mention to your client that it could be worth buying a bigger transformer in the beginning so you can add fixtures later."


In addition to using high quality product, you can ensure long-term, near maintenance-free low-voltage landscape lighting through careful installation. The few extra minutes it takes to do the job "right" could save you hours of aggravation in call backs.

Running the wire at a depth and position where it will be safe for maintenance equipment, such as aerators and edgers, is a good place to start. Pergantis suggests making sure the wire is three to four inches under the ground.

"Also, if you have a choice between running wire under a grass area or under a mulch area, go with the mulch area," he says. "If you're putting lights along a walkway, and the walkway is bordered on one side by grass and a planting bed on the other, you might want to consider lighting the path from the planting bed side only. On pathways that aren't very wide, you don't want to put lights on both sides any' way. And if fixtures are going to be on both sides, don't put them directly opposite of one another. You don't want continuous light down the path. You want pools of light—light and then dark, light and then dark. That makes the lighting so much more interesting and inviting."

Running wire directly along a sidewalk that borders a grass area should be avoided, as the wire could be damaged during routine edging. Pergantis suggests running underground wire in areas that are inherently out of harm's way, such as against retaining walls. Unfortunately, he admits, there are situations where wire must be buried in more damage-susceptible areas. Still, he does offer a solution.

"Whenever I have to cross from mulch to grass, or grass to rocks, or any situation where the wire could be particularly vulnerable to maintenance equipment, I use a 12-inch long piece of 3/4-inch PVC as a sleeve to protect it," he explains. "That leads me to another point: If you have the opportunity prior to the pouring of a walkway, go ahead and put a piece of conduit underneath, and mark it so you can find it when you need to, so that you can slide wire underneath the walkway later on."

There are several other installation basics Pergantis is quick to suggest. Wire connections should not be loose or sloppy, and transformers should not be overloaded. Fixtures should be straight when installed, and if a hole was dug for fixture installation, the soil refilling the hole should be well-compacted so that the fixture stays in place. And keep in mind when placing fixtures in trees that trees grow. (Treemounted fixtures should also be as concealed as possible.)

"People mount fixtures in trees like they're trying to hold up the whole world," says Pergantis. "They bang tacks holding wire into the tree, and as the tree grows the wire can cut right into it. You want to attach wire on trees lightly, even loosely. One thing that works well with tree fixtures are lag bolts—as the tree grows, you can back the bolt off the tree.

"You know, something like an irrigation system inherently needs some kind of maintenance," he concludes. "But installed properly from the beginning, low-voltage landscape, lighting systems require nothing more to maintain than a screwdriver and a little Vaseline on the sockets when you change bulbs. Unless someone drives over a fixture, there's really almost no maintenance involved. Once you finish the installation, you can move on to the next project."

10636 Chisholm Landing Terrace, North Potomac, MD 20878-4263
voice: (301)-762-5444 efax: (240)-597-8552

Copyright © 2001. Nite Lites

Questions or Comments? Please Send Mail to: nitelitescgp@hotmail.com